Five tips for taking better bird photos

A pair of cardinals sitting on a branch By Bonnie Taylor Barry/Shutterstock

If you’re new to birding, Tony Beck may consider you late to the party. “People are finally noticing the magic of birds,” says the seasoned birder and wildlife photographer, who bought his first film camera in 1983. He has tips for budding bird photographers.

 1  Ideally, “every birdwatcher would have a camera with a telephoto lens,” says Beck. A telephoto lens allows you to capture close-ups without disturbing the bird. Plus, high quality photos help you keep accurate records of your sightings. Expect to pay at least a few hundred dollars for a suitable lens. 

 2  Put the bird’s well-being first. If a bird is using energy to escape you—energy better used to find food or flee true predators—stop and don’t go any closer. “If the bird relaxes, you can try to approach.” But if the bird flies away, leave it alone. Otherwise, you are harassing or even endangering the bird. Avoid eye contact—at least initially—and approaching birds head-on, Beck adds. To many birds, this is how a predator behaves.

 3  For novices, lugging around heavy camera equipment without scaring birds away may seem nearly impossible. The solution? Beck says a bridge camera—they fill the gap between point-and-shoot and SLR cameras—is “an economical and convenient way to get bird photos.” These cameras have wide angle and telephoto capabilities to meet birding needs; just don’t go expecting professional quality photos. (Beck prefers his 500-millimetre Nikon D850 camera—$3,899.)

 4  Beck doesn’t recommend smartphones for wildlife photography. If you want to use your smartphone, try placing your phone camera against the eyepiece of a pair of binoculars or a telescope. But capturing good photos this way takes a lot of practice, Beck notes. 

 5  When shooting, “I do like to get that ‘standard textbook’ pose,” says Beck. That is, a profile shot where you can see all the characteristics of the bird. But eventually, he suggests, try capturing behaviour: preening, stretching wings, or interacting with other birds. Those shots are often the most remarkable. Of course, don’t forget to put the camera down and “absorb the essence” of the beautiful bird before you. “I would rather get a good photo of a common bird than a fleeting glimpse of a rarity.

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